Sunday, February 20, 2011

Winds of Change...

Something that is both difficult and wonderful about being teacher in a foreign country is all the interesting people you meet. Not only do you meet people from your host country, you make friends with others who share the same language. I have have made English speaking friends from not only America, but Australia, Canada, England, South Africa, and New Zealand. While making new friends is wonderful, it is difficult when one comes to the end of that teaching contract and is faced with the decision to stay or go.

This past weekend I spent with one of the first English-speaking friends I made here in Korea. I had been in Korea for about two weeks when I ventured to Pohang in search of some good shopping. I happened upon two westerners sitting outside a Starbucks. They invited me to join them and I did. This photo was taken that evening before I hopped on the bus back to Uljin. This was the beginning of a great friendship. We have laughed until we cried and cried until we laughed. We have made fun of each others accents and have various misunderstandings over rules of games (pool, Uno), meanings of words (now, just now, now now), proper pronunciation (bill vs bull, milk vs mulk, etc...), and names of things (bandage vs plaster, stroller vs "pram", etc.) Through this all, however, I know I have made a friend who I will always think of fondly and have great memories of. From our late night talks to early morning (well, crack of noon) breakfasts, to launching "boats" into a rice paddy, to silly sleepovers where we talked for hours on end solving all the problems of the world, we made this friendship work on the basis of trust and honesty.

Until I met her, I had never had a friend from South Africa. I had never been to China or tasted Peking Duck. I never knew there could be so many different names for silly things like q-tips and band-aids. I never knew such a deep friendship could develop in such a short time and it would be this difficult to say farewell.

To my friend, Bronwen, I will say "Farewell", but not "Goodbye". Even if we never see each other face to face again, I know she will always be a part of my great Korean Adventure and I am blessed to have known her.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Record Snowfall in Uljin!!

As a midwest American girl, I can handle some snow. I even enjoy an occasional storm where we get five or six inches or more. I mean, it's kind of fun to get out and have a good snowball fight or build a snowman. This week, however, I saw more snow than I have EVER seen in one storm! This quaint, little, seaside town got almost a meter of snow in less that 24 hours! (That is about 3 feet for us American folk) The newspapers report this is the largest snowfall since 1911!! Yes! One hundred years ago was the last time they had snow like this! Global warming?? HA! So nice of them to include me in this historic event! By the way, that is a car under all that snow and it's not a snowdrift...

The interesting thing was how the Korean people of this little town handled all this snow. At approximately 9 a.m. Saturday morning, after we had accumulated about a meter of snow, the ladies of the apartment building knocked on the door and went on and on in Korean and pointed outside. This was translated by us English folk as, "Hey, there is lots of snow. Come shovel with us. Now!" For the next two hours or so the shoveling took place clearing a narrow path so people could get from the road to the building. Now, shoveling in Korea does not neccesarily mean with shovels. People used brooms, dust pans, plastic bowls, and even sleds. Yes, if it could move the snow, it could be used! Cars were completely buried with no hope of moving and there was no hope of me returning to the other side of town to my own place. The sidewalks and roads were not passable and, guess what? It was starting to snow...again!

The snow went on and off all day Saturday while our little group of foreign teachers gathered at one apartment for movies, pizza, card games, and chess. There was little else we could do! Sunday came bright and sunny, so move shoveling ensued. The Korean Army was even deployed to Uljin to help people dig out and remove the snow. We did finally uncover the mystery of where all the snow goes. They load it on to giant trucks and dump it in the river! What a great idea! Of course, where else could they possibly put it?

Monday morning came with, you guessed it, more snow! My boss apparently did not realize just how bad the snow was, so he actually opened school. I walked there in a blizzard ready to pull my hair out the whole way, only to find a mere five students had bothered to show up for class. He finally gave in to Mother Nature after two hours of no students and sent us home. I had to walk. In the snow. Uphill. Barefoot. (ok, so my boot developed a slight hole...) At least I discovered umbrellas have more than just one use and was able to keep the snow from blowing onto my face ;-)

Finally, Tuesday came with promises of sunshine and clear skies. The walk was much better today, though it seemed as though I was sloshing through mashed potatoes most of the time! At least it had stopped snowing...finally!

Today is Wednesday and we were blessed with another day of sunshine! I managed to dig out my scooter and move it into the sun for the ice to melt. I could not believe it started right up after being buried like this!! Ahhh, my hunk o' junk! Hey, it gets me where I want to go! Rumor has it we are getting rain on Thursday. I'm sure that will be just lovely.

I'd like to thank Korea for allowing me to be a part of an historic winter with record low temps (lowest in 96 years) and record snowfall (most in 100 years). Now, can we just get on with the Spring thaw already?!?!?

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Heart of Seoul

I spent the last five days with a few friends visiting Seoul. It is a far, far cry from the little town of Uljin I currently call "home". In my opinion, Seoul, like many cities, its good points and bad. Of course, everyone does not agree on all things, however, I will take this entry to give you a few of my thoughts on the Heart of Seoul.

Seoul is a huge, bustling, crowded, lively city. If ever there was a city that never sleeps, I would think of Seoul. It seems like no matter what time, day or night, there is always something to do. I spent time shopping, sightseeing, soul-searching, eating and, of course, one cannot go to Seoul without checking out the nightlife. Our accommodations were simple and clean at Hong Guesthouse near Hongik University subway stop and we had easy access to everything we needed and/or wanted. Seoul is a place where you can find just about any type of thing you are looking for whether it is a great band to check out, an awesome dance club, traditional Korean fare, or a taste of home (
like Taco Bell or Quiznos!). Seoul truly can be defined as an international city.

Let's break it down a bit.

SUBWAY: I found the subway to be quite easy to navigate and definitely the easiest, cheapest way to travel around the city. Everything is clearly marked in Korean and English and maps are available everywhere. I have a "T-Money" card that is reloadable, so all I had to do was swipe that puppy on the reader and trot on through to my train. The trains run quite frequently and we were able to get just about anywhere in less than 30 minutes. Try doing that in rush hour back home! As far as safety is concerned, there was only one place where there were quite few homeless people sleeping in their little cardboard shelters. Other than that, I really had no worries.

PEOPLE: Hmmm...this is a tough subject. On one hand, people were generally friendly and helpful when I asked for assistance. I do take issue with the taxi drivers who did not seem to want to take you someplace that may only be a short ride. I mean, money is money, right? Guess not.
The restaurant staff are second to none! This seems to be true in most of Korea. Yes, even in Taco Bell! This is one thing I cannot seem to get used to in Korea. Wait staff are INCREDIBLE!!! I mean, I N C R E D I B L E!!! They hustle to your table to fill your glass and make you feel like the most important guest they have had all year. They don't meander around or act like they are too busy for you. These servers are there for you! They WANT to serve you. To top it all off, there is no tipping! I mean, I want to tip these people, but it is not customary. I feel a bit spoiled after dining out in Korea. I'm not sure I will be able to tolerate some of the lower standards some restaurants have back home.
The last thing I can say about people in Seoul is that there are LOTS and LOTS of them!! Seoul is crowded...very crowded. If you don't like crowds, Seoul is definitely not the place for you. People push and shove and move quickly, but if they stood and waited patiently, they would never get anything accomplished. That's just the way it is in Seoul. Deal with it, or go home.

SHOPPING: Markets, markets and more markets!! Of course there are department stores, specialty shops, food shops, foreign markets, and much, much more! We had great fun visiting Dongdaemun Market and Namdaemun Markets as well as Yongsan Electronics Market. We found great deals on hats, socks, souvenirs, clothes, electronics, and more. In my opinion, if you cannot find what you are looking for in Seoul, you probably don't need it! Additionally, it seems to me that everything can be bought in Seoul...for a price, of course.

EATING: Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, name it, you can find it. Itaewon seems to be the place for most western food finds as well as foreign markets where you can find blue cheese dressing, pop-tarts and even baked beans! Itaewon lured us with it's promise of Taco Bell, Quiznos, Cold Stone Creamery, Outback, Mr. Kebab, and many other fine eateries! ;-) Although not the safest place to be after dark, one can find food to satisfy the most refined palates as well as those of us who are ready to hurt someone for cheese fries and ranch! Head there during the day for lunch and shopping. You will not be disappointed!

SIGHTSEEING: There are so many things to see and do in Seoul, it is almost impossible to do it all in one trip. We managed a bit of culture by visiting the N. Seoul Tower and the Korean War Memorial. Both were well worth the time, though it was a bit foggy to see much from the Tower. There was, however, plenty of entertainment on the plaza level as well as many photo ops. The War Memorial was even more fascinating than I could even imagine.

NIGHTLIFE: Suffice it to say the night club streets are as jam packed as the actual clubs. The really good dance clubs charge a pretty hefty cover charge (around 15,000-30,000 won) but you do get 'one free drink'. Yeah, free...riiiight... If it is "Ladies Night", one can expect some freebies and plenty of hip beats to keep you dancing until the wee hours of the morning. I'm not certain what time many of the clubs actually close, but I do know many in our hostel rolled in between 5 and 6 a.m. and had been dancing all night! There are many street vendors offering wares and food for those who can party hard, and we even saw a man peddling cute little puppies (yes, for pets) in a heated enclosure. Yep, this city does not sleep!

OVERALL: My overall take of Seoul was simply this. It was a great place to visit. I'll definitely go back, but I would not want to live there. It's big, there are thousands and thousands of people, the subways are excellent, and the food is the best I've found in Korea. It is, however, just a bit too overwhelming for me. For now, I'll stay in my little seaside town of Uljin and enjoy the green grass, friendly people, fresh air, and salty sea!